f it was not abundantly clear before now, that African and Black voices are not as valued, represented, amplified and published as white ones in the West, then surely the disparities between advances paid for books laid bare through #PublishingPaidMe and the current global uproar in favour of #BlackLivesMatter have illuminated the situation for those who were in the dark.
Publishing in the West
Various studies and research papers show that publishing in the UK, and by extension, the Western world, is predominated by white authors. This does not just mean that the publishing industry provides disproportionately more jobs and thus general security to white employees, it also inevitably means that the stories that are published have to pass through a publishing process that is led and executed by white editors, white publicists, and white decision makers across the board.
By implication, there is a high chance that African or Black stories that end up being published, may have been ‘sanitised’ by a predominantly white editing and reading process, but perhaps, more importantly, this could suggest that the stories that do not make it past the entrance gate, may have been rejected, not because of a lack of quality, but because of a lack of cultural sensibilities or understanding, due to western-imposed value judgements etc.
The ‘Diversity’ Box and Pigeonholing
To tackle this issue, publishing houses try to tick the ‘diversity’ box by publishing a few ‘non-white’ authors and then rejecting the others who send their work in – since there is ‘already someone like them’. In addition, an almost exclusively white work force in publishing has led to African and Black authors being pigeonholed on more than one occasion.
Popular subjects for African or Black authors to write about include: immigration stories, preferably ones where a Western country or person comes to the rescue in the end; stories about racial discrimination and / or violence, preferably with a happy ending in a Western country, you know, for the feel-good factor; stories of survival of war, famine, genocide, the more explicit, the better, because you know: poverty (or misery porn) sells relatively well.
While African and Black lives can indeed be influenced and dwarfed by negative factors, their experiences are neither monolithic nor one-sided.
While African and Black lives can indeed be influenced and dwarfed by negative factors, their experiences are neither monolithic nor one-sided, and if the Nigerian literary industry has shown us anything, it’s that writers and readers alike are interested in a variety of subjects and topics. Unfortunately, what we often end up with, due to the lack of inclusion of a variety of voices within Western publishing industries, is either a lack / absence of representation, a one-sided one, or an unimaginative version of African stories, based on the limited experience and often biased expectations of commissioning editors, for example.
What Can We Do?
A question that keeps on surfacing when talking about this issue, however, is why writers and readers alike tend to overlook or ignore, almost intentionally, the one industry that is geared to, catering to, and writing to a predominantly Black audience – the African publishing world.
In contemporary African publishing, the baseline is largely Black, especially in the publishing landscape of the West African region. Other regions, such as Southern Africa are in the process of shifting towards Black African writers and their work as well, but due to the nature of their past, that landscape has had to form in a different way – but I digress.
[…] supporting publishers on the continent means more than just an act of charity. It means investing in the diversity and universality of Black stories on a scale that can never be achieved in the West. It’s also a practical means of supporting a continent that we love to claim to be a part of – either by direct heritage or by way of the Caribbean.
African publishers, like the Cameroonian Bakwa or the Nigerian Masobe, publish and distribute stories written by Black African authors, and those stories encompass different experiences. They depict various characters from various backgrounds, and, more often than not, they’re mostly (if not all) Black. As such, supporting publishers on the continent means more than just an act of charity. It means investing in the diversity and universality of Black stories on a scale that can never be achieved in the West. It’s also a practical means of supporting a continent that we love to claim to be a part of – either by direct heritage or by way of the Caribbean.
Whenever we raise the question as to why: writers and readers in the West are less likely to even seemingly consider the idea of publishing with, supporting, reading or spreading the word about African publishers more, the answer is often loosely related to issues of accessibility and distribution outside the continent. While that may be true for some, there are dozens of publishers (if not more) that deliver easily and directly to Western countries, their books are freely available on Amazon and other sites, yet we seldom hear about them in mainstream discourse about publishing. So the question remains: Why beg for a seat on a seemingly full table when there are several other tables with empty seats for us? Why don’t we look to, support, finance, read, and help African publishers, but instead seem to prefer to beg for scraps from a table that was never built with us in mind?
Why beg for a seat on a seemingly full table when there are several other tables with empty seats for us? Why don’t we look to, support, finance, read, and help African publishers, but instead seem to prefer to beg for scraps from a table that was never built with us in mind?
So far, we have not received an answer yet, but hopefully we will sometime soon. In the meantime, we want to make clear that this post is not an attempt to deter protestors from demanding what they feel is owed them especially those who feel more of a connection to the West than they do to Africa. But if you ever get tired and need some respite, remember that there is a whole continent out there with people just like you. They may not be as privileged as you are as a Westerner, their stories may not be all about race, but they are beautiful and they matter too. So if accurate and varied representation is what you want, African literature may be what you need. Find out about them, support them, and spread the word about them. Most of them deliver directly from the continent to wherever you are, and if they don’t state it clearly on their websites, get in touch with them via email or on social media, because, from our experience, they’re always happy to help.
[…] if accurate and varied representation is what you want, African literature may be what you need.
Go where the love is and buy books that reflect us from publishers who value us.